Friday, December 22, 2006

Virtual Console Releases - Christmas Edition

Hooray! Thanks to Nintendo's generosity, we're able to see what games will await us on Virtual Console this Christmas Day! I'm sure many of you will be away for the holidays, so I wanted to post the weekly review a few days early.

This is an excellent week for classic gamers; possibly the best yet. We're seeing a record five games across four of the five current platforms. There still hasn't been any more releases for the Nintendo 64, but I'm sure more will be coming in the next year. After Christmas, there is only one more VC Monday for 2006; and wouldn't ya know it, it's going to stink. We won't get grouchy just yet. We can speculate on the next year later, when we're nursing New Years' hangovers. Now, let's open our presents.

Super Mario Brothers - Nintendo for NES - 10/10

I dunno, perhaps Nintendo has been sticking us with their early NES games - among their very worst - to remind us just how revolutionary Super Mario Brothers was when it was new. It truly was the next breakthrough in games. It heralded a new era, a new way of making videogames. Like all great breakthroughs, it built upon earlier efforts, compiling them together, and adding that extra push into the unknown. Nintendo and videogames would never be the same.

I think it's easy to say that Super Mario was the best game ever made in 1985. It may still hold that honor today, if you consider its influence. Every 2D game from that point forward stole from Mario. Many of its design elements, things like game worlds, power-ups and hidden secrets, are as common as joysticks and high score tables.

There's really two game worlds at play here. There's the game that you see, and then there's the unseen world, just hiding beneath the surface. This is the reason Mario was so great, and nobody else could really top that. It's all about exploring and wandering around. Goofing off. The later Super Mario games would elevate this to an art form.

Super Mario Bros might seem a little tame today, a little straightforward. The series expanded and grew, and took the games industry with it. But you've got to start somewhere, and few great game series start out as complete and perfected as the original Super Mario Bros. There's a reason Nintendo has been repackaging and reselling it for 20 years: it's the best damn game they ever made.

Castlevania 4 - Konami for Super NES - 9/10

No, I am not going to put that stupid "Super" prefix on Castlevania 4. The first four Castlevania games are kinda like the first four Black Sabbath albums. Menacing, powerful, and oh-so close to perfection. This is the last time you got a new Castlevania, before the series turned inward and cannibalized itself.

The early Castlevania games were among the tightest, toughest action-platformers ever made. They've never really been surpassed, and no one at the time really even tried. They were too intimidated, I guess. Maybe I'm just thinking of Sabbath again. Whatever. The bottom line is this - if your knowledge of this series consists purely of Symphony of the Night, which managed to reinvent Castlevania by not resembling it at all - then you're in for a shock. You're about to have your asses handed to you.

This game was always among my favorites on the SNES. Let me illuminate. After the first wave of Nintendo games (Super Mario World, F-Zero, Sim City), the Super Nintendo was struggling. Games were far and few between, and all of the third-party efforts were terrible. The console was a slow and groggy mess against the Sega Genesis, thanks to Sonic and Streets of Rage and Toejam & Earl. Too much hype and too many disappointments.

Then Konami rolls in with a Castlevania that finally shows just what the Super NES can do. The graphics are terrific, bright, and sharper than anything. Characters are large, environments are varied and moody. And that music! Such wonderful music! The Super NES' sound chip could sample real instruments, so Konami experimented with a wide palette of sounds. Horns, flutes, pianos, bases. The music veers from moody to contemplative to jazzy from one level to the next.

True story: when I was living in the dorms at St. Scholastica, I was playing Castlevania 4 while my roommate was sleeping. I was playing the waterfall scene, with the somber piano and strings music. My roommate later told me the song gave him nightmares.

Street Fighter 2: The World Warrior - Capcom for Super NES - 9/10

And now, another crucical game that really saved Nintendo's bacon. In fact, I'd say Street Fighter 2 was the most important game in the console's lifespan. Without it, The SNES would have been irretreviably hammered by Sega. Not only did Capcom deliver a nearly-perfect rendition of the arcade game, it remained a SNES exclusive for two years.

You have to remember that SF2 was a sensation. It was the first arcade game that drew in numbers not seen since the glory days of Pac-Man, of Asteroids, of Space Invaders. This baby was huge. Another interesting thing happened; the home version of SF2 played so close to the coin-op, kids were using it as practice for the competitive matches at the arcades. We still kept throwing quarters into the machine, just to challenge one another.

It helped that Capcom soon released SF2: Champion Edition, which to my mind perfected the whole formula, and started that endless run of upgrades and spin-offs for the better part of a decade. For a time, that really damaged Capcom's reputation, especially when they kept insisting on our paying $70 for another Street Fighter cartridge at home.

Whatever. The question here, today, is whether The World Warrior still holds up. Thankfully, it still does. I'd much rather have SF2 Turbo on the SNES, or SF2 Special Champion Edition on Genesis, make an appearance on the Virtual Console. Until then, I'm perfectly happy to blister my thumbs, one more time. Too bad the arcades went extinct.

Toejam & Earl - Sega for Genesis - 9/10

Toejam came out in 1991 on the heels of Sonic, and I'm sure there are a few who would actually insist it was the better game. It's always been a favorite of fans, thanks to its goofy humor and quirky sense of charm. Toejam, strangely, became one of those Sega franchises that got away, lost in the haze. Clearly, Sega never understood how to preserve its best characters nearly as well as Nintendo.

Can you believe there was a time when Sega held a whole stable of great games? Sonic, Toejam, Ecco, Streets of Rage, Shinobi, Technosoft's games, Treasure's games, Joe Montana Football...what happened to them?

As for Toejam & Earl, the original was given a sequel that is disliked by fans, mainly because is was a side-scrolling action game (at the behest of marketing), instead of the overhead, sprawling quest. It's not nearly as bad as everyone thinks it is; Panic on Funkotron is pretty good, actually. It just can't hold a candle to the original.

This game's best feature - no, not the hip-hop jamming mode - is the randomly generated levels. It's a new game every time. That's one of the design ideas from the home computer era, and it's pretty much lost now. Memory is no longer a restraint like it once was. You really had to squeeze those bytes in to make it all fit. Today, everything is just bloated.

Oh, and two can play at the same time, too. Did'ja know that? One of Sega's very best. Enjoy.

R-Type - Irem for Turbografx - 9/10

Finally, another quality release for the Turbografx, another one of its best. Heck, let's be generous. This is the best Turbo game released so far, maybe the best ever if you're a fan of R-Type.

Here's another example of great classic games that simply aren't being made anymore. One reason for that is the sheer saturation shoot-em-ups endured by the end of the 16-bit era. There's really not much left to be done, creatively, and the best shooters were always kind of hard. If you're not quick on the reflexes, you're going to get hurt a lot.

And, lookie lookie, R-Type is one of those classic hard arcade games. One of the ones that takes a quarter out of your pocket every 30 seconds. I don't know if today's XBox kid could handle it. GameFAQs can't help you here, son. You're on your own.

Anyway, R-Type is one of the most influential shooters ever made. It pretty much defines the whole side-scrolling shooter genre, and it's still arguably the best. There's a cleanness, a clarity, to its level design. You aren't overwhelmed with firepower, just a few basic weapons that have all become iconic to the genre, and endless parades of H.R. Giger-inspired alien designs.

The Turbo version is as close to the arcade as you can get, and it's the perfect use for that multifire switch. Those switches were a godsend back then. We needed all the help we could get. Correction: you're going to need all the help you can get. Is it just me, or do the older games seem a lot harder? Oy, vey.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Yep, Nintendo's Playing Good Cop-Bad Cop

Yep, I was right. Nintendo really does play good cop-bad cop with its Virtual Console. One week, the games are good. The next, everything's shit. This monday is Christmas, and by an astounding coincidence, it happens to be the Good Week. How good? Super Mario Bros, Street Fighter 2, Toejam and Earl, Castlevania 4, R-Type. That good.

The next week after? NES Baseball and Urban Champion. Yep, back to the pain. I still can't figure out if Nintendo does this just for kicks. Still, at least the Christmas presents are nice.

Oh, and just for the record, if you're wondering what I told Santa I wanted for Christmas, I said the Black Sabbath box set, a laptop computer, and my dead aunt back.

Monday, December 18, 2006

This Week's Virtual Console Releases

Alright, kids, it's time for this week's Virtual Console reviews. I'm becoming aware of a peculiar little pattern on Nintendo's part. Perhaps you've noticed as well. It seems we keep veering back and forth, good games one week, lousy games the next. It's been the pattern since the Wii's launch last month. Really, what's the deal with that?

There's something else I'm sure you'll note - there are only three games this week. What the heck happened to Nintendo's promised four-game schedule? It's not as though they're desperate for titles. Last time I checked, these consoles are drowning in them. There are several thousand games to choose from across five different platforms. And yet, Nintendo is already chincing out on us. Again, what's the deal?

It's easy to feel a little cynical, with the high price of games (Nintendo really should move to a monthly fee), and all those quality titles in Japan. Those lucky kids got Super Mario World, Contra 3, Castlevania 4, all on day one. We got stuck with...Urban Champion. Are you freakin' kidding me?

In any case, there's little good in protesting, and, besides, next week's bound to be a winner. I think we're getting Toejam & Earl. Let's spend a couple minutes with this week's crop.

Tennis - Nintendo for NES - 2/10

Ah, another winner from Nintendo. This was totally worth waiting in line at Best Buy for six hours! Yay! You're not a total sucker for buying that Wii on Ebay! More hideously painful NES games! Yippie!

Seriously, what is it with Nintendo releasing all their worst NES games, and the earliest ones, at that? I'm beginning to openly speculate that this is their way of pumping up the quality of the Wii's library. Suddenly, when compared to NES Tennis from 1983, Wii Sports looks like a work of genius.

Some executive, somewhere, honestly believes that you, dear reader, are either too stupid, too desperate, or too brand-name loyal to pass up such moder videogame classics like Urban Champion, Pinball, Soccer, Baseball, and now Tennis. None of them are playable in any real way, and they never were. You can't actually hit the tennis ball, although a lot of the time you'll connect with the handle of your racket, and kill the damned ball. At least, that's my best theory on what happens.

I don't get it. Activision made a good Tennis game for the Atari 2600. Hell, Atari's Realsports Tennis had better music, far better controls, and you could actually put your name on the scoreboard. What does Nintendo Tennis offer? Players that can't hit the broadside of a barn. The choice of two ball speeds - sloooowww....and fucking sloooowww.

I say this is the worst Virtual Console release yet. Who's with me?

Military Madness - Hudson for Turbografx - 6/10

Alright, here's the deal. Back around '89 or so, Hudson released a strategy game for the Turbo called Military Madness. It was an okay game that nontheless stood out on the console. Eventually, it gained a reputation as one of the "lost classics" of the 16-bit era, and is remembered fondly while everyone blazes away on Advance Wars years later.

So I will grant a certain nostalgia value for this game. It certainly has its adherants. But I can't really count myself among them. To be brutally honest, I don't think Military Madness has anything going for it but nostalgia. It's a retro trip for thirty-somethings who still don't want to let go of their adolescence.

I don't think this game will carry nearly the same appeal to new eyes, especially anyone who's played a few rounds of Advance Wars. Comparatively, MM is too slow, too unbalanced, too passive. The game was built around single-player, which usually involves overcoming heavy odds against a better-equipped computer opponent. That means 2-player games are always unbalanced, sometimes embarassingly so. Hey, if you want to re-enact the first Gulf War, by all means, go ahead.

Then there's the fact that Technosoft happened to release Herzog Zwei on Genesis at the same time. It was an evolutionary leap forward - fast, intense, built for multiplaers, and building the groundwork for what became real-time strategy games. Herzog Zwei is a timeless classic. Military Madness is a dinosaur bone.

Space Harrier 2 - Sega for Genesis - 6/10

Finally, just to show everyone that I hold no grudges for or against any one console, I'll say the same things about Space Harrier 2 on the Genesis. Another early game that was fun and enjoyable for a time, and then aged terribly.

I'd certainly say that this was a quality version of Space Harrier for its time, although its choppy scrolling - software scaling only appeared on Genesis later - was always a turn-off. It's better than either the NES or SMS versions. But the game was still a bit sparse, and still a step below the arcade game. And did I mention the choppy scrolling?

I don't know how a simple arcade shooter like this would sell today. I do remember that Sega tried to revive the franchise with Planet Harriers a few years ago, but it pretty much came and went. I think this is one of those games that relies upon its graphics. Strip all the paint away, and you have a very basic shoot-em-up, the kind you used to see back in the Atari days.

Again, Space Harrier is dependent upon nostalgia. That, and a really lousy VC release schedule. I think if Sega's going to bring us the early Genesis titles, then they really need to start with their A-material: Forgotten Worlds, Ghouls 'N Ghosts, Revenge of Shinobi, Herzog Zwei, oh, and maybe Last Battle if they bring back the exploding heads from the Japanese version.

Dammit, get us some real games, and stop screwing us around.

Monday, December 11, 2006

This Week's Virtual Console Releases

After last week's terrible lineup, I'm sure everyone will be happily looking forward to this batch. We're being asked to pay hard cash for the same games again and again, but now we're finally able to play some classic games that have so far evaded any reissues.

It seems that Nintendo will be following the release schedule from Japan for the forseeable future, which means that the States will only be a little behind the curve. Again. Hey, it wouldn't be classic game nostalgia without Japan-envy, right? At least Sega isn't packaging fruit roll-ups. Be thankful for that. Let's take a look at this week's releases:

Ice Hockey - Nintendo for NES - 8/10

Ice Hockey has never claimed to be anything more than a simple, arcade-style hockey game, and despite the likes of Blades of Steel and EA Sports, this little title has always held its own. Perhaps this is a reason why Nintendo is dumping so many early NES titles onto the VC - they're trying to recapture that magic of gameplay that transcends graphics.

In any case, here's Ice Hockey in all its glory. It certainly has its flaws, like having to control both the goalie and another player (which makes defense a real pain), and no real balance between the three players. Be honest. You're going to fill up your team with fat kids. Who's gonna be the stringbean?

Hmm. I'm surprised no one ever thought to release this game with the South Park characters. In any case, this is five dollars wisely spent.

Alien Crush - Naxat Soft for Turbographx - 6/10

I noticed earlier this weekend that Hudson has the rights to Alien Crush, which was developed by Naxat Soft. Since I'm unaware if that studio is around any more (likely not), this is good news, because we'd never want their excellent games to be lost to the winds. Now Alien Crush is back for the first time since its 1989 debut.

There have been a few attempts at making a good video pinball game, but most of them fell short. Just about the only good one was Bill Budge's Pinball Construction Set, from EA's early glory days a thousand years ago. So Alien Crush was a real standout among the early Turbografx games.

This is probably the start of the whole videogame-pinball fusion, which is still used today with the likes of Metroid Fusion Pinball and all those lousy character-driven pinball titles on the Gameboy Advance. It's a fun game, always offers a number of goals and options, and is loaded, loaded, LOADED with atmosphere.

It's a formula that Naxat perfected with Devil's Crush a short time later. That's the one I'm really looking forward to.

Dr. Robotnik's Mean Bean Machine - Compile for Genesis - 7/10

This game has one very obvious fault for me, and I'm sure it's a thorn in your side as well. This game is really Compile's Puyo Puyo. It's a great little series of games, even if you couldn't tell one apart from the other to save the light. It's a genuine mainstay for puzzle fans.

No, the crime is this: Sega of America ripped out all the original Puyo Puyo characters, and threw in the ones from the hideous Sonic the Hedgehog cartoon show. You know, the one starring Erkel. Yeech. Now I have to watch this bulbous, blobby guy with a really bad mustache hurl insults at poorly-drawn cartoon characters nobody liked.

Nintendo, of course, committed the same crime, bastardising the SNES version with characters from the Kirby universe. Another cheap cash-in...booo!! Just leave the damn thing alone, already!

There's no need in having a Puyo Puyo for every console, so if you have another version lying around somewhere, you can safely skip this version. If not, well, the core of the game is very good, and it's always nice to play on the big screen with friends.

Gunstar Heroes - Treasure for Genesis - 10/10

Now we've hit paydirt. What more can I say about Gunstar Heroes than I've already written in my Videogame Classics essay? It's arguably the best game ever made for the Sega Genesis (Herzog Zwei and S3K give it a run for its money), arguably the best game Treasure ever made, and arguably the greatest run-and-gun shooter after the original NES Contra.

You'll get into long-winded discussions with Gunstar fans about how Sega royally screwed up in the States, with the lousy box art instead of the cool Japanese artwork, the lack of any aggressive marketing, and those damned fruit roll-ups. What genius came up with that pathetic idea? The game was condemned to the status of cult classic, overlooked or unlooked by most, but revered by the few who took note.

Don't be one of those who missed the boat. Gunstar is about as sure a must-have as anything you'll find on store shelves today. This is going to seriously cut into your Wii proper time.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Virtual Console Reviews - Launch Games, pt 2

Okay, I didn't want to make several different posts for the other game systems on Virtual Console, since the games are too few. Let's just pack everything else together. I think this should bring us up to the present, but as I've written before, I don't have a Wii, and am not expecting to for some weeks. If there are any games I'm missing, let me know. Also, don't forget my earlier post of Japanese VC titles, which included some short, loud-mouthed opinions.

Anyways, here's the rest of the VC lineup:

F-Zero - Nintendo for SNES - 1991 - 8/10

F-Zero was a real rush when it came out at the dawn of the Super Nintendo. It was not only a terrific showcase for Nintendo's machine, it was a thrilling racer that put nearly every other contemporary title to shame. I can't think of another racing game on the consoles at that time, expect for maybe Super Monaco GP on the Genesis, that came anywhere close.

Today, everyone complains about the lack of any multiplayer modes on F-Zero. Yes, it's a shame, but I don't remember too many complaints back in '91. Perhaps we were just too happy with what we had. Besides, there weren't too many multiplayer racing games in the home; those few games had to settle for a split-screen that cut down on any visual details terribly. The machines at the time just couldn't handle it very well. There's a reason Super Mario Kart was so popular, you see.

Anyway, you can't do wrong with F-Zero. There's a purity to the original version that later installments somehow lacked, despite their charms. Nostalgia, probably. Still works for me.

Sim City - Nintendo for SNES - 1991 - 9/10

Sim City was the surprise hit of the Super NES launch, and especially in those later dry months when all the new games were awful. It's interesting that this game came from the same period as those other great "brain games" - Populous and Tetris. These game invented and mastered whole genres that we're still playing with today, while everything else has fallen into obscurity.

I think Nintendo's version of Sim City is the best, mainly because of the graphic style, and all of those exclusive extras. There are a lot more bonuses in the game, things like parks and casinos and a giant Mario statue if your town reaches 500,000 people. The musical selections are magnificent, both catchy and poignant, a tribute to the SNES' brilliant sound chip (designed by a certain company that's now getting its comeuppance). And the mayor character, who dispenses advice to newcomers, adds much needed personality.

If you were observant, you'd notice that the Sim City mayor made a cameo appearance in last year's Zelda game, The Minish Cap. Small world, huh? I'm a real sucker for these creative games, and I'll still pull Sim City out every once in a while.

Oh, and I nearly forgot - the money code. Learn the money code! It's essential to enjoying Sim City. And stop whining about having to use a joypad instead of the Wiimote. Get over it.

Super Mario 64 - Nintendo for N64 - 1996 - 10/10

Hey, lookit that! It's Super Mario 64! Again! That would make this the third time we're paying for the same game. Sure, it's just about the greatest videogame ever made, so I'll bite my tongue and go along. At least there's a Mario game at launch.

I don't know what else to say about this game. I can't imagine you don't already know about it. It's like asking someone if they've ever heard of The Beatles. It's damn near the top of the required-playing list. We'll forgive Mario and Mr. Miyamoto for all the boring and dispirited 3D platformers to come in the aftermath. Who knew that so many game designers were such terrible students? Perhaps they should go back to Mario 64 and try to remember what made it so much fun.

Altered Beast - Sega for Genesis - 1988 - 3/10

Altered Beast was actually a very good arcade game, one of a whole pack of great Sega arcade games during the late '80s. Sega then took that game, stripped it to the bone, sucked out all the challenge, and most of the fun, and crammed it onto a tiny 2-megabit (256k) cartridge for the Sega Genesis.

This was one of the very first Mega Drive games from 1988. Can't you tell? The early Genesis games were not arcade perfect, but they were close, close enough that it didn't matter to most of us. But I'm thinking of games like Ghouls 'N Ghosts and Forgotten Worlds and maybe Afterburner 2. Altered Beast just doesn't belong in that pack.

It's a cinch of a game. Really, you can waltz through to the end in 20 minutes, and still leave time for a coffee break. It was an early work and a cheap conversion, and it shows. The game's only novelty were the voice samples and large characters, impressive in the age of NES. But that's not worth $8; it's barely worth $2. This game makes a mockery of Nintendo's pricing system for VC.

Sonic the Hedgehog - Sonic Team for Genesis - 1991 - 10/10

I wrote lengthy essays on the first four Sonic games as part of my Videogame Classics series. I really don't know what more to add to them, so I'd suggest you read those. To recap, The First Four Sonics - starting with Sonic the Hedgehog in '91, then followed by Sonic the Hedgehog 2, Sonic CD, and Sonic 3 & Knuckles - represent the apex of the 16-bit era, and everything that made Sega great. It chronicles the comany's underdog rise to greatness and triumph, before hubris and arrogance led to the inevitable decline.

Poor Sonic was once on top of the world. He knocked out Mario and ended Nintendo's reign. Now he's become videogaming's answer to Spinal Tap, a burned-out parody of his former self. Older gamers greet each new Sonic installment with dread, hoping that somehow, this time, the blue spud will pull himself out of the gutter. The younger kids probably just see a sad joke, another poor mascot in a string of terrible games.

Well, kids, here's your chance to see Sonic before he became Fat Elvis. Enjoy.

Bonk's Adventure - Hudson for Turbografx - 1990 - 7/10

Bonk came out before Sonic? Now there's a surprise. I seem to remember that he was the last to the party. Perhaps this was only in the States. Anyway, Bonk's Adventure was Hudson's best effort to create a Mario-style mascot for the PC Engine, aka the Turbografx-16. For a time, it was a very successful game, and aided the console's fortunes for a time. It didn't really make much of a difference in the long run (NEC was finished by the time the Super NES arrived), but fans had a really fun game to call their own.

I think the mascot image has hurt Bonk in the long run. People today expect something on par with Mario and Sonic, and poor Bonk just isn't in that league. Because of this, expectations are raised beyond the game's ability to deliver, and it's a little unfair. What we have is a quality action game with loads of personality. It spawned more sequels than it was ever worth, really, and those later games are just simple continuations.

Whatever. Bonk's Adventure is a very good game, just nowhere near as good or bad as the hype would have you believe.

Bomberman '93 - Hudson for Turbografx - 1993 - 7/10

Hey, how could I forget about a Bomberman game? What was I thinking?

Fortunately, I have everything on my computer, so I can fire up Magic Engine and play a few games to see where this installment of Bomberman stands. As a general rule, Bomberman party games are always enjoyable, but the absolute apex of the series is Super Bomberman 2 on the Super NES - the greatest of all console multiplayer games.

I always wind up comparing Bomberman '93 to the later version, and it's a bit like comparing a rough draft against the final paper. The formula is in the process of being perfected. If you're new to Bomberman, this is a good place to start. It's meant to be a party game and the Wii seems destined to become a beloved party system. That said, here's my short list of complaints:

- Graphics are a little too candy-like, without any environmental hazards like ice. And most of the levels lack that real punch. There is one great level with regenerating blocks, but that was the only real standout for me.

- The pacing is a little casual, a little slow. You can see the elements that gave SB2 its intensity. The ability to kick bombs down warp holes. The ability to knock around the curse items instead of destroying them. The time limit. The speedup icon. The glove. For the love of Elvis, the freakin' glove!

- I miss the extra Bomberman colors. Sue me. Oh, and those slime bombs. And the G-Bomber idea was great.

So, basically, I'm really just shilling for Super Bomberman 2 instead of Bomberman '93. Whatever. At least you know where I stand. Let's all cross our fingers and hope Hudson doesn't just stick with this one Bomberman for the Virtual Console.

Virtual Console Reviews - NES Launch

Okay, this is a great way to pad out a weblog without doing any real, responsible writing, but I thought I should write reviews for all the launch games for Nintendo's Virtual Console. For this post, we'll take a look at the NES releases, seven in all. It's pretty painful, so be sure to put on your Peril-Sensitive Sunglasses:

Donkey Kong - Nintendo for NES - 1984 - 5/10

I think this was among the very first Famicom games from 1984. It shows. Why Nintendo couldn't be bothered to make the perfect version of Donkey Kong remains a mystery to generations of videogamers. This was just a cheap-ass port that may have impressed those poor kids who got stuck with the Atari 2600 version, but no one else.

Donkey Kong on NES is missing the introductions, the "how high can you go?" level screens, and one of the game's four levels. How's that for being cheap? Yuck. This whole thing is a damn ripoff if Nintendo expects you to cough up five bucks for this drivel. If you could buy the game for, say, one dollar...well, it would still be a ripoff, but at least it would be managable.

Just for the record, the best home version of Donkey Kong? The Atari 800 version.

Mario Bros. - Nintendo for NES - 1984 - 5/10

The chincey Nintendo arcade ports continue with another early Famicom game, this time Mario Bros. Now, Mario Bros was a really good game at the time, especially for its two-player action. You could work together, or you could bump your sibling right into an oncoming crab. Ah, good times.

The NES version, again, is a cheap-ass port that cut too many corners and just looks like a second-hand effort. Don't you think Nintendo would've put some pride in their own arcade legacy? These should have been the definitive versions, but, again, what we get is second-rate.

This is not worth five bucks. Anyone who thinks otherwise is either stupid...or spending someone else's money.

Pinball - Nintendo for NES - 1983 - 3/10

It's shit.

Did I say that already? My apologies, but it really needs to be said. This game is absolutely terrible, and you have to seriously wonder why Nintendo chose to dump so many poor NES titles onto the VC. What's the freakin' deal, anyway?!

For its time, Pinball isn't too terrible, but it was never any better than mediocre, and it's aged terribly. Its only function, I suppose, may be to remind future generations just how boring some of those early-80s videogames really were.

Soccer - Nintendo for NES - 1984 - 2/10

Aw, booo!!!! BOOO!!!

What the hell are you trying to do, Nintendo?! Are you trying to get us to return our Wii's and buy Playstations? Are you trying to lose this thing?

We're not even dealing with boring or mediocre games anymore. Now we're in the seventh level of hell. The optimist in me hopes that Virtual Console could revive the whole history of videogames, ushering an era when you could freely pick and choose through any console's history.

The cynic in me says this is just another Cheap Nintendo Stunt. One where they steal from the dumb suckers who consider themselves fans, and stick you with a steaming pile of...well, you get the idea.

Solomon's Key - Tecmo for NES - 1987 - 7/10

Alright, this is better. A real game. One that's worth playing, at that. Solomon's Key is an action-puzzler, similar enough to other games of the time like Adventures of Lolo and Milon's Secret Castle. And don't forget the ever-present Super Mario influence, with secrets hidden behind the blocks.

This is a smart little game, and it strikes a good balance between making you think and keeping you on your toes. I'd say that I prefer Milon's Secret Castle, but that's just me. You'll do well to have a title like this in your VC collection. Heck, after that painful journey through the underworld, this is better than ten Super Bowls.

If you want a good example of the period when the NES really hit its stride, this is a good pick.

The Legend of Zelda - Nintendo for NES - 1986 - 10/10


This is the real reason most people care about the VC. Sure, you've already paid for the original Zelda a couple times already, including a Gameboy Advance re-release a year or two ago, which makes me a little suspicious about Nintendo's future plans for their emulation service. I'm getting a little tired of being told to pay money for the same games again and again. Maybe that's just me.

Fortunately, this is the first reappearance of this game on a full console since the original NES days. It's a rush to play through Zelda again, especially now that I've long forgotten where everything is. It'll be just like playing through the first time again.

The only potential problem I forsee is that today's kids won't have the patience to hunt around Hyrule to find everything. You see, all the later games since Zelda 3 on the Super Nintendo showed you where to plant the bombs, and where all the secrets were. No such luxuries here, junior. The only way you're going to find anything is by strapping bombs to every...square...inch of wall in the game.

Ha ha ha ha ha!!! Did I also mention that Zelda is a pretty damned tough game to boot? As Hunter Thompson liked to say, pay the money, take the ride.

Wario Woods - Nintendo for NES - 1994 - 5/10

Finally, we're back to dullsville with this rather dull puzzler from 1994. Wasn't the NES already a stinking corpse by then? Heck, I think the Genesis was just about to be taken out back by Sega and wacked. Why would anyone still be playing NES games?

Wario's Woods is oddly named, since it's clearly just a standard stack-three-things Tetris knockoff with Nintendo cartoon characters slapped on. It's funny to notice that these are all the second-tier characters. That pink dinosaur girl who shoots eggs? What was her name again? And I'm supposed to care because...?

The difference between this game and every other Tetris clone is that your character grabs the puzzle pieces and throws them around. And everything is sickenly, cloyingly cute. Yuck. It's just the sort of thing girlfriends pull out when they want to embarass you into giving up videogames.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Castlevania - Portrait of Ruin - Early Impressions

The new Castlevania arrived today, so I rushed down to the store and picked one up. I was telling myself to save the money stored on my EB Games card (earned from returning some DS games) towards the Wii, but that didn't last for long. I've always been a Castlevania fan, so there's no way I'm going to miss the latest 2D installment.

We'll just forget about all the 3D versions of Castlevania, m'kay?

Anyhoo, if you're familiar with the last several installments of Castlevania on Gameboy Advance and DS, you're pretty well situated with this newest episode. Each of the previous four versions were updated variations on Symphony of the Night, and it culminated with Dawn of Sorrow last year. I think that was the best version of the whole lot; Dawn may even be better than the hallowed Symphony itself, or at least it represented the perfection of the formula.

Portrait of Ruin marks the first real break from the formula. Yes, I know, the soul collecting from Dawn of Sorrow (and its predecessor, Aria of Sorrow) was the first true innovation to the long-standing formula, but now we're seeing the new turf. The game is constructed a little like Super Mario 64, with Dracula's Castle serving as a central hub, and a number of game worlds stretching outward.

I think Koji Igarashi, the father of Castlevania, wanted to make a game that connected Symphony with the earlier, action-oriented installments. Those are the real classics of Castlevania, the ones that the older gamers pull out whenever they become board with the latest easy-going round of Castle-Metroid. These newer games are great, of course, but they're embarrasingly easy. Cakewalks. The original Castlevania, Simon Quest, Dracula's Curse - those games are brutally hard.

So, now, finally, we have the latest version which tries to fuse that classic gameplay with the Symphony exploration style. Whether or not you decide the idea is a success depends, I suppose, on how much you loved those old games. Needless to say, I'm having a great time.

I'm getting tired of waltzing through the same castle over and over, so it's a thrill to finally see some new environments. I'm currently stuck on an Egyptian world, with desert sands and haunted pyramids. It's one of those things that instantly feels right at home. I can't believe that Igarashi didn't do this earlier. I can't tell you how nice it is to actually be outdoors again. Dawn had some outdoor segments, but not nearly enough. There's also a world set in working-class England which is really cool.

More cool bits. Your two main characters can team up for super-charged attacks. You can walk around solo, or with your partner following around - you can use the stylus to direct the other person where to go. Secondary weapons, things like axes and knives, and whatnot, can be powered up through experience. Each weapon becomes stronger with use, on the road to mastery. It's this game's answer to soul collecting.

Also, smashing lights and candles will produce money if your special-weapon meter is full; otherwise, they will produce hearts. That's a clever design decision. Now you have to choose between building up your weapons, and saving up for more items, spells, and accessories. It's a very simple balance, and really one of the standouts for me.

Do I have any beefs with Portrait of Ruin yet? Only one so far, and it's the same one I always have - the game is far too easy. These exploration games always become a cakewalk once your heroes are properly powered-up enough. It's the modern Castlevania plague. Even Dawn of Sorrow was too damned easy, but thankfully, its hard mode was genuinely, honestly hard. This new game better have a hard mode that's really hard.

I'll pass along more impressions on Castlevania whenever the mood hits. So far, though, it's a great game.

The Mii Lebowski

I've been wanting to post this for some time, so here it is. One of the best Lebowski spoofs I've yet seen. My thanks to the people responsible for putting this together - it surely wasn't an easy task.

A Whole Pile of Elebits Screens

Just because I can. This game has even started creeping into my dreams at night. My brain is hooked.

Just because I can ;)

Blogger Still Sucks Ass

I'm having problems with Blogger...yet again. Imagine that. They won't upload any damned pictures right now, so hopefully I'll be able to do that later.

Have I mentioned yet how much I really, really hate Blogger? What was the point to that damned upgrade if the thing still isn't going to work? Google's getting too big for their britches.

Twilight Princess - Ocarina Part 2 - Some Thoughts

Here are some thoughts I rambled out over at 4 Color Rebellion, on their recent post on the new Zelda game, Twilight Princess. Just wanted to pass them along here and see what you think.

I haven’t played it yet, so I should keep that in mind, but it does seem very heavily influenced by the Ocarina style. This isn’t really any surprise. The reason (as I understood it) Nintendo made this game in the first place was to placate all the angry fans who were upset over Wind Waker. That game was too different, just like Mario Sunshine. So everyone bellyached, and Nintendo caved, and promised a traditional Zelda.

And, as is always the case, the game arrives two years overdue. That’s really the saving grace, since having only one Zelda every five years means Nintendo can get away with repackaging the same game again and again. And, despite the minor tweaks from one version to the next, what we have is the same game that we played on NES in 1985 and Super NES in 1991.

Is that a problem? No, not really. It seems no one can make a better adventure game than the Zelda series. Why that is, I’ll never know. Thank goodness Nintendo still knows how to make the formula work.

The “hook” for this version, I suppose, are the Wii controls. That may be enough for fans to enjoy the game; besides, like I said, there hasn’t been a Zelda to play in years. Familiarity can be a good thing.

The only downside to TP as a launch title means that it’s likely we won’t see another Zelda during the Wii’s lifespan. I’d like to see that change, but I’m also aware that the game’s depth is largely due to its immensely long development time. These games really do take four or five years to design.

So I won’t mind too terribly if we’re getting Ocarina Part 2. I’ve long felt that was the best game ever made, so I don’t mind having a chance to reenact it. Of course, if the next Zelda game isn’t any different, then I’ll be far less forgiving. Since we’ll soon be able to play all the older console Zeldas on Wii (GC, emulation), they’re gonna have to come up with some genuinely new ideas if and when there’s a next one.

Last Week's New VC Releases

I decided that if I'm going to regularly review each week's games for the Virtual Console, I should go back and post some more specific thoughts on last week's three games, Golden Axe, Ecco the Dolphin, and Super Star Soldier. Besides, it really needs to be said again, this week's crop of releases were all duds. Last week was far better.

If you've missed out on these games the first time, then here's a perfect chance to play catch-up. And if you're just too young, this is a good opportunity to see what a real videogame looks like - unlike the formulaic "puppet theatre" drivel you get these days. Dagnabbit.

Golden Axe - Sega for Genesis - 1989 - 7/10

Golden Axe was among the first and best games to follow from the beat-em-up mold popularized by Double Dragon. It was an excellent arcade game that introduced the novel idea of the magic special weapon, that can be built up by stealing blue bottles from these little guys in blue hats. The tough coin-op was brought faithfully to the Genesis in 1989, and became an early standout for anyone looking to impress their friends with Nintendos.

Golden Axe spawned a number of arcade sequels, all of which were terrible and lacked the magic of the original. The Genesis saw two exclusive sequels; of these, I think Golden Axe 2 may be the best of the whole series (at least, on the Genesis), but GA3 was a shocking disappointment.

At its core, Golden Axe is an arcade game. Its function is to steal quarters away from you every few minutes, and on that front, it was very successful. There really isn't much depth aside from mashing the punch button and knowing when to get out of the way. The genre became oversaturated by the end of the 16-bit era, and pretty much died with the Genesis and Super Nintendo. Strange, isn't it?

Ecco the Dolphin - Novotrade for Genesis - 1992 - 9/10

Ecco is one of the very best games made for the Sega Genesis. It's reputation has faded over time, despite Sega's attempts to bring the character back on the Dreamcast a few years back. It's another casualty of the games industry's move away from 2D sprites in favor of 3D polygons. Whole genres of games, and volumes of game theory, were thrown to the four winds.

Ecco represents one of the smartest, most diverse, and most challenging adventure games yet made. There are elements of adventure, platforming, action, and puzzle games, each weaving into one another from one level to the next. That diversity was remarkable in 1992. It still is. And don't fool yourselves; Ecco is one tough game.

One personal note: I wrote a review for Ecco which was published in Electronic Games magazine in 1992. Or was it early '93? I forget, but I still have my copy around somewhere. I think that was my very first published work. I was smiling on a cloud for days.

Super Star Soldier - Hudson for Turbografx - 1991 - 8/10

The PC Engine was popular in Japan, but the American counterpart, Turbografx-16, failed to gain any real traction. The tragedy largely resides in the large library of games that could never be brought to the States. But, occasionally, one or two great games squeaked through, just enough to let you know that there was more to be seen than what we were getting.

Super Star Soldier is one such example. NEC's console was home to many quality shooters, and this game is just about at the top of the list. I'll freely place it among my favorite shooters of the 16-bit era, up there with the likes of Blazing Lasers, Thunder Force 3, Fire Shark, yadda yadda. The pace is frantic enough, with some diversity in the landscapes, enemies, and weapons available to you.

Like Golden Axe, Super Star Soldier belongs to a nearly-extinct genre of games, although bullet shooters keep popping up every once in a while. I'm not much of a fan of the bullet shooters; it's too much pattern memorization, and too little action. My reflexes need a real workout. Here's one game that will give you a real workout.

Cooking Mama on Nintendo Wii

Here are some of the latest screens from the upcoming Wii version of Cooking Mama. I had a lot of fun with the original DS version, and I'm looking forward to this one. The Wii version will include a two-player competition, where both players rush to complete recipies first.

At its core, this is another game that demonstrates the abilities of the Wiimote, and once again it is essentially a collection of minigames. This is to be expected for the console's first wave of titles, and will serve as the foundation for the revolutionary games of tomorrow. Oh, and have I mentioned this was a really fun Nintendo DS game? Let's keep our eyes peeled for this one, kids.

Cooking Mama should ship in Japan sometime this month, and I'd expect the US release would be sometime early next year.

Sunday, December 03, 2006

This Week's New VC Releases

Nintendo, I understand, has settled on a steady release schedule for the Virtual Console. Four games will be released every Monday, around 9am Pacific. This is a good steady supply of games; we all want everything now, but of course there's no harm in waiting. It's smarter to get people to spend a little money every week or two on the classic games. We do need time to actually play these things, ya know.

This week's releases are pretty thin. To be fair, I don't think there's a winner in the bunch, nothing near the quality of last week's triple hits. One more game for NES, another for the Turbografx, and two more for Genesis. Let's have a look at the contestants:

Donkey Kong, Jr - Nintendo for NES - 1984 - 5/10

I think DK Junior was among the very first games for the Famicom in 1984. It shows. Again, with Donkey Kong, corners were cut for no good reason (I could play perfectly good versions on my Atari 800 for years). Fortunately, all of the arcade levels are available, even if they're duds for the most part.

Nostalgia may compell you to part with your five bucks, but I can't recommend it. I have to admit that I never was a fan of Junior. Donkey Kong was one of the greatest hits of the classic era, and I do appreciate the young Shigeru Miyamoto for trying a new approach instead of simply cashing in (something that plagued videogames then and now). The NES version was just a cheap port, and it shows.

Victory Road - Hudson Soft for Turbografx-16 - 1989 - 5/10

Victory Road was one of the launch games for the Turbografx in 1989, where it competed against Super Hang-On on the Genesis. Despite some good early titles, NEC's console was overwhelmed within a short time. Feel free to inject your own conspiracy theories here.

There are many great games on the Turbo, but Victory Road isn't one of them. It tries to be Outrun, except it's slow. It's more like a lazy drive through traffic. It's boring. The only graphical novelty was the changing time of the day, and racing into night. Big whoop. I'd tell you to spend your money at the arcades, if there were any. Too bad for the teenagers of today - you missed out.

Columns - Sega for Genesis - 1990 - 5/10

Columns was one of the earliest games to cash in on what was then a new Tetris craze. It didn't take long for the clones to start popping up everywhere, with every developer and their uncle trying to create the next monster puzzle hit. Sega tried their hands with Columns, but despite some pretty graphics and typically catchy Genesis music, the game was a miss.

Sega tried to tinker around with Columns with a few sequels, but nothing could really distinguish it apart from the pack. It's a very flat, shallow puzzler, it has it moments, but aged terribly. Among its peers, I think Klax was far better, and since then, other games from Puyo Puyo and Puzzle Fighter to Lumines and Meteos have propelled the genre forward. No thanks. I'll have to pass.

Ristar - Sega for Genesis - 1994 - 6/10

I guess this means Ristar is the champion of the week. Big freakin' deal. Ristar was released at the end of the Genesis' life, as Sega was systematically breaking the company into a thousand pieces. Obviously, the suits have long felt the game never found the audience it deserved, since it's appeared again and again on compilation disks.

I do like the colorful graphics in Ristar, but it's time to just be honest. It's not that great a game. The market was flooded with mascot platformers, and this little guy feels more like...well, he feels like Poochy. There. I've said it. Ristar is Sega's Poochy. As for the game itself, it's somewhat lifeless. Indistinguishable. Common. Bland. Ristar's arm-stretching schtick wears thin after about a minute, but that's all there really is. You could do worse, but then again, you could do much, much better. The very definition of "eh."

SSX for Nintendo Wii - New Trailer

Here, watch the new trailer for EA's new SSX game for the Wii. See if it grows on you. Pass it around.

Friday, December 01, 2006

My Final Advance Wars Maps?

A while ago, I created a whole pile of new custom maps for Advance Wars 2, which could be run on any emulator or just pieced together for any of the AW games. I was pretty stoked about it, especially after discovering the many comments on my older maps on AdvanceWarsNet. So I scuttled together nine new maps, fine-tuned and completed the first three, and posted the screenshots here and at AWN.

That was a bad idea. The wonderful little brats at AWN immediately yawned and chucked it aside, without even as much as a passing glance. Needless to say, I was pretty angered by the whole thing, and the whole reality of trying to impress or amuse 14-year-olds stared me in the face. The rest of the maps stayed in their folder, and I haven't bothered to complete any of them or put them on save files.

The whole point of creating these maps - duh - is for people to actually play them. If that's not going to happen, then I'm pretty obviously wasting my time. And it's frustrating because I think my maps are excellent. There's a lot of game theory and design that goes into creating a good map that flows quickly and stays balanced. You have to figure out what units should be available at start, where they should go, and where any essential things like bases and cities should go. It all involves a lot of playtesting, and many years of playing classic multiplayer games on all those old computers and consoles.

And then some damn kids shoot 'em down. Uh, this sucks. Huh-huh-huh-huh. Whatever.

You know, someday, I'd like to create some art that's actually popular. I'd like to be recognized for all my hard work before they put me in the ground. Is that too much to ask for?

So, anyway, I decided to post the screenshots of the other six maps. These were created on a map editor. Afterword, what I do is recreate them on AW2, and then add all the units and playtest until everything's perfectly balanced. I may go back and finish them sometime, one of these days. After that, it's probably the end of the Advance Wars maps. 24 is more than enough.

Enjoy the maps! Try them out sometime if you're in the mood....

Kentucky Rain - 2p - Named after an Elvis song from his greatest album, From Elvis in Memphis. This is one that went through endless variations before coming to the final form. The geography came first, and then everything fell into place eventually.

The Cycle of Birth and Death - 2p - Named largely for the ying-yang design of the board. I also wanted some way of asking the player to question the whole nature of war. It's just one of those ways that I force my spirtual beliefs down your throats each and every day.

Harvest Moon - 2p - Named, of course, for Natsume's endless series of farming games. I was also thinking of Neil Young's album of the same name. This is another example of solid visual design dictating the flow of the map.

Fuck - 4p - I couldn't decide whether to call it this or "The Bush Crime Family." Either way, it's the same sentiment. Yeah, I know, it's childish and silly, but I still think it's funny. Maybe the dumb kids at AWN would actually like this. And, hey, 4 player fun!

My Brain Hurts - 3p - I wanted to come up with some air-based maps, and I think this works very nicely. It just started out as a cheap doodle and evolved from there. It's not easy to create a good air map, but I think this stands out nicely.

No War 4 Empire - 4p - Shameless plug for my first book. Cough, cough. Hey, I need all the cheap publicity I can get. This is the other air map, and that focus really frees up the map design. Again, I wanted something that just looks different, but also compelling and fun. This one probably still needs work.

And that's the last of 'em! You better enjoy all of this! Dagnabbit.